Utilities sector focus: The heat is on

How are utility companies tackling a chronic shortage of specialist skills and attracting more women to the sector? Roger Milne and Karma Ockenden discover how three major companies are rising to the challenge.

Yorkshire Water

Water company staff are used to dealing with emergency situations such as burst water mains, but the sheer scale of the floods that hit parts of the country this summer presented an almost unprecedented challenge to staff on the front line. Yorkshire was one of the worst affected regions.

Pamela Rogerson is human resources manager for the part of Yorkshire Water that suffered the most, heading up the environmental business unit – the side of the company that deals with wastewater collection and treatment. “A lot of sewage works [Yorkshire has around 600] were completely flooded and we had to deal with sewage in people’s homes,” she explains. The unit employs 600 people, a substantial proportion of Yorkshire Water’s 2,200 staff.

Rogerson explains that because of routine emergencies, they have a set-up where they can call on people 24 hours a day, so scrambling response teams wasn’t a problem. She adds: “Many of our employees are very proud, long-serving and loyal. They are willing to come out at times like this.”

Set terms and conditions govern what employees are entitled to when they are called to work in such circumstances, but Rogerson says Yorkshire Water chose to “pay them that bit extra” because of the sheer scale and nature of the incident. Some worked incredibly long hours and on top had to deal with customers who were understandably aggravated and distressed.

On more routine days, Rogerson works as part of an HR team of 49, which has a devolved structure. There is a central HR function and a set of specialist teams – for example, one for each of the business units (water and wastewater), an internal communications team, an employee relations team and so on.

“Retention has never been an issue for us,” Rogerson explains, as Yorkshire Water’s staff are mostly settled and committed.

Recruitment is trickier. Across the industry, there is both a dearth of supply (fewer young people are attracted to traditional engineering careers than used to be the case) and a swell in demand – the likes of Crossrail and the Olympic development are taking on a lot of appropriately trained staff. Yorkshire Water is in a better position than most as it is the best-performing water company and hence has a strong employer brand. Nevertheless, Rogerson admits it has difficulty filling some roles that have very specific skill requirements. “It does feel tough and is getting tougher,” she says.

Aside from a structured, two-year graduate recruitment programme, Yorkshire Water has initiated two main policies to help tackle the problem. It first carried out extensive work on diversity, culminating in the launch of its ‘Open to all’ employer brand. “This is so we can be sure we are reaching out to the biggest pool,” explains Rogerson. And second, a move to bring people in at a lower level of qualification – say at the end of school – and develop their skills in-house.

The company believes in strong ongoing training and development. Two examples are its 18-month programme for managers and potential leaders to develop leadership skills, and another for all its technical staff.

It is in the process of strengthening its performance management policy. Three years ago it introduced quarterly performance discussions for all managers, with a bonus attached for top performers. To that it is adding a regular (six-month to annual) performance discussion for every employee, with the dual aim of personal development and succession planning.

RWE npower

As with any utility company, the shortage of engineers is a major challenge for RWE npower, exacerbated by the fact that the great majority of the company’s existing engineering staff are in their 50s.

“A lot of our engineers are going to retire in the next 10 years,” says HR director Saudagar Singh. This is a headache if your core activity is owning and operating a fleet of power stations, and doubly so if your company is currently investing around £1bn in new kit: electricity-making plant driven by the wind, coal, and gas and (in the near future) probably nuclear too.

RWE npower employs 6,500 people, located at power station sites or in office complexes near Worcester, in and around Birmingham and in County Durham. The company is a subsidiary of German utility giant RWE. In the UK, it is best known for its retail brand npower, which sells energy to industry and households, makes electricity in power stations, and is one of the UK’s big six electricity and gas suppliers.

It’s not just any old engineers the company is looking for. Singh says the company needs people who know their way round the working environment of turbines, controls and instrumentation, as well as even more specialist metallurgists and material scientists.

The company has had to be proactive – within the HR department is a dedicated team, which lives, breathes and sleeps the hunt for engineers. It has set apprenticeship schemes in south Wales and in the north of England, courted university departments, organised competitions among university engineering undergraduates, sent in top staff to give lectures, and ensures senior company figures are on the boards of engineering faculties.

The company has begun to recruit from beyond the UK, with Eastern Europe a focus. Nine Polish engineers have recently joined RWE npower, for whom it has had to provide intensive language training. It expects to do more of the same.

The company also has a schools programme, to enthuse children and educators about what the company does.

“Energy companies like ours are right in at the sharp end of the energy and environmental debate,” says Singh. “The issues we deal with day to day are what the media write about regularly.”

However, staff retention is not too much of a problem, he insists, since the company offers plenty of scope to move around or switch track or discipline. And as part of a large European utility, there are opportunities to work in mainland European countries, such as Germany and Hungary.

“Prospective employees like the opportunities that come with a major UK company with a German parent,” says Singh. RWE npower has made the Sunday Times list of best companies to work for, partly no doubt because it has managed to recruit well over 200 engineers this year.

Singh concedes that the fact some of its power stations are located in the back of beyond poses a problem, as do the huge sums offered to tempt engineers to work in countries such as South Africa and Iraq.

And he is the first to admit that the company has some way to go to overcome the predominately male profile of its power station staff. However, the HR department now has a director of diversity and inclusivity, which could be why it is recognised as one of the top 50 UK companies in terms of its female-friendly policies. Female managers are actively encouraged to mentor women joining the company.

“We’ve come a long way since I started here seven years ago” says Singh. “I’d like it to be going faster, but I know it’s not going to happen overnight”.

National Grid

National Grid is one of the world’s largest utility companies, employing around 20,000 staff. Its principal interests are in the transmission and distribution of electricity and gas in the UK and the US.

National Grid owns the high-voltage electricity system in England and Wales, and operates the system across the UK. So when the nation decided it wanted a cuppa at half-time in the England v South Africa rugby world cup final, its staff made sure the electricity network could cope with the resulting surge in demand for power.

The company also owns and operates the UK’s high-pressure gas transmission system in Britain. In the US it owns and operates electricity transmission and distribution systems serving more than 3.3 million customers in New England and New York State, as well as gas distribution networks in New York and on Rhode Island.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the company’s recruitment needs are very engineering-based. But perhaps less obviously, it is a company that for the past two years has ranked highly as a place where women like to work, and one making a determined bid to recruit and develop female engineers – an ongoing challenge for any organisation in the energy and utility sector, where women make up just a quarter of the workforce.

Catherine Hamilton, National Grid’s inclusion and diversity manager, is the first to admit that most people’s image of a worker would be something like this: an ageing white Anglo-Saxon male in a hard hat and overalls getting dirty down a trench or dangling from a height while repairing an overhead power line.

The reality, though, is a little different. Last year, for instance, despite recruitment becoming harder across utilities, National Grid did rather well in terms of attracting engineering talent.

“National Grid is attracting good engineers, many of whom are female,” says Hamilton. “In fact, 25% of graduate engineers are now female and 32% of graduates overall are female,” she adds.

This has not happened by chance. The company has profiles on its website of women already employed by the organisation, and it consciously targets universities with a high proportion of female engineering students, making sure female graduate engineers are on hand at graduate fairs. National Grid graduates are also encouraged to speak to groups of A-Level students who are considering engineering as a career.

National Grid is conscious that the engineering and construction industries are seen as having a glass ceiling, and Hamilton explains that the company is planning to discuss the problem and decide what can be done to improve it.

She’s adamant it’s not just companies that have to change. She argues that people need to become more comfortable with the prospect that the engineer who turns up to mend the gas leak or change the meter will increasingly be a young woman, not a 50-year-old man.

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